Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey and the Brexit

Turkey’s EU accession bid may be put indefinitely on hold in the wake of the result of last week’s British referendum, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite the rants of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a large portion of Turkish public opinion was clinging to the hope that the UK would remain a member of the EU in last week’s British referendum, however loudly some may have protested to the contrary. This included most of the rank and file of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the ultranationalist parties.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier thumbed his nose at Turkey and the Turkish people, declaring in what he may have thought was a witty attempt to allay his countrymen’s fears as he lobbied for a vote to remain in the EU, that the Turks would not be able to join the organisation “before the year 3000”.

The Turks had little choice but to bear the sting, and their president’s tongue-lashing of the European leaders was little more than an attempt to save face and hide his damaged pride.

“Theoretically speaking, we are not an EU member but, practically speaking, we are a European power and a democracy,” said Turkey’s Minister of European Affairs Ömer Çelik in the wake of the referendum result. He went on to stress his country’s desire to “open a new chapter in the negotiations that will contribute to creating innovative solutions to many of the present problems to the benefit of all parties and strengthening relations between Brussels and Ankara.”

Until last Thursday evening most Turks believed that the British referendum would come out in favour of the country remaining in the EU. These hopes evaporated in the early hours of Friday morning when people awoke to find that the British right wing, opposed to everything Turkish, had prevailed.

Worse, the result could be a harbinger of other waves of chauvinism throughout the rest of Europe, which would put paid to Turkish hopes of joining the EU’s remaining 27 members.

In 1999, after a long and difficult campaign led by the coalition government headed by Bülent Ecevit, the EU Luxembourg Summit approved Turkey’s candidacy for membership of the organisation. Seventeen years later, the Turkish EU accession bid may be put on indefinite hold.

When he was in office, French President Nicolas Sarkozy once said that his country would never take part in any talks that might open the door to a place for Turkey in the European Union. Perhaps he thought he was echoing the words of former French president Charles de Gaulle to the effect that Turkey belonged not to Europe but to the “complicated Orient”.

From the perspective of ordinary people far from the corridors of power, the horizons appear bleak. They have seen the gap between Europe and Anatolia growing wider over recent years, and the British divorce from Brussels has now hugely widened it. The British wavering is over, and it has concluded with the not entirely explicit message to the Turks that they will never be a member of the European Christian family.

Is religion alone the barrier? Erdogan seems to think so judging by his angry remarks to EU officials in Belgium when he said, “You reject our membership because the majority of our people are Muslims.” He said that the French foreign minister had made this clear to the then Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, apparently telling him, “You are wasting your time trying to become a member of the EU because you are Muslims.”

But is there another part to the story? Many believe there is and that it comes under the heading of democracy, or, more precisely, of the steady chipping away at the progress Turkey had made on democratic rights and freedoms under Erdogan’s rule and the risk that what remains of the rule of law in the country will also be destroyed.

Of particular concern has been Erdogan’s rejection of the European demand that Turkey amend its anti-terrorism laws, one of the chief conditions for obtaining visa-free entry for Turkish citizens into Schengen Area countries.

Erdogan claims that changing these laws will weaken the ability of the Turkish security agencies to fight terrorism, but the Europeans have pointed to the draconian use of these loosely worded laws to muffle the press, silence the opposition and lay siege to political adversaries in Turkey.

As if to drive home how clearly people in Europe see through Erdogan’s disguises, this year’s Leipzig Award for Media Freedom was awarded to Turkish journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, who were tried and convicted in Turkey in May on charges of espionage and abetting terrorism.

The two Cumhuriyet journalists had published a report exposing how a convoy of trucks belonging to Turkish intelligence had delivered shipments of arms disguised as aid to Syrian extremists.

The Turkish judiciary is also under siege. Ever since the corruption scandals broke in December 2013 the country’s judges and other members of its judiciary have been subject to sudden transfers to remote postings in a bid to make them resign.

A prominent instance of this arose last week when Prosecutor Menderes Arican called for the Turkish justice minister’s resignation on his Facebook page. Two days later Arican was moved from his current posting in western Turkey to an out-of-the-way place on the opposite side of the country.

Worse is just around the corner. In a few days the government will press forward with a project to “restructure” the Turkish judiciary that is designed to secure Erdogan’s grip on the courts before making a final push to achieve the constitutional amendments he needs to establish a presidential system of government in Turkey.

According to a bill awaiting parliamentary approval, most of the 711 judges in two of the highest courts in the country —the Council of State, the highest administrative court, and the Court of Cassation —will be dismissed. Erdogan will then be able to appoint a quarter of the new Council of State judges, stacking this important judicial body with loyalists.

The president of the Turkish Bar Association, Metin Feyzioglu, has cautioned against these “dangerous changes,” while a prominent EU source has described the impending move against the Turkish judiciary as “revenge” for the judicial rulings that have challenged Erdogan.

This is perhaps one reason why the opinion poll that was published in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet on Sunday should not be taken lightly. According to the country’s opposition parties, the purpose of the poll, conducted by a major pro-Erdogan polling company, was to drive home the impression that the Islamic faith, and not the deterioration of democracy in Turkey, is the reason the EU has been rejecting Turkish membership.

Erdogan has already suggested holding a referendum to decide whether Turkey should continue with the EU accession process. Should the results of this referendum be in favour of a farewell to the EU, Erdogan will at last be free of the final restraints on him both at home and abroad.

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